Editorial: Hillsborough commissioners need reminding in 2018 of their mass-transit pledge

Improving bus service is just one step in a truly comprehensive transportation plan but it's among the most important actions the Hillsborough County Commission can take in 2018. [Times file]
Improving bus service is just one step in a truly comprehensive transportation plan but it's among the most important actions the Hillsborough County Commission can take in 2018. [Times file]
Published January 4 2018
Updated January 5 2018

The 2018 to-do list spelled out by members of the Hillsborough County Commission is a heartening one.

Transit, economic development, jobs, stormwater drainage, affordable housing, reviving the Museum of Science and Industry.

The informal priority list came in response to an end-of-the-year question to each of the seven commissioners from Steve Contorno of the Tampa Bay Times. Only Ken Hagan failed to respond; heís had little to say to reporters since October when he announced a preferred Hillsborough County location for a Tampa Bay Rays stadium in case the team decides to move from St. Petersburg.

Itís safe to say a baseball stadium and the daunting task of paying for it rates high on Haganís 2018 to-do list. Heís been working on it for some time. None of the other commissioners even mentioned it.

Three commissioners listed transit as a priority ó the two Democrats, Les Miller and Pat Kemp, and Republican Chairwoman Sandy Murman. That all seven didnít jump at the chance to shout, "Transit in 2018," is cause for some concern. When they voted early last year to spend more than $800 million for roads over 10 years, it came with a somber pledge that they would follow up with money for mass transit.

Republican Commissioners Victor Crist, Stacy White and Al Higginbotham apparently need reminding of this.

Crist, especially, is on the hook to deliver, given his grandstanding in 2016 when he positioned himself as the deciding vote to kill a Go Hillsborough transportation plan that was half roads and half transit. Crist said then in casting a fourth "No" vote, "Frankly, the decision I made tonight was not based on data, it was not based on one thing I heard. It was just old-fashioned intuition."

We can only hope that Cristís intuition turns him in a productive direction this year.

Murman, another "No" vote on Go Hillsborough, has signalled that she at least understands the desperate need to find a mass transit plan worth supporting. She told Contorno she aims to unveil a proposal to fund the woefully inadequate bus system for three to five years and "get them really transformed." Miller said commissioners might need to raise taxes. Kemp wants to spend county dollars on transit.

Itís all talk so far. And Go Hillsborough was three years of talk that produced nothing but frustration and serious doubts about whether this commission has the capacity to tackle the most pressing need facing the community.

The question will be answered in 2018.

On other pressing needs, Crist said heíll be focused on lingering flooding problems despite millions spent to fix them in the University-area district he now represents. Miller said heíll work to create more jobs to improve the quality of life for everyone. White wants to toughen the comprehensive plan to make sure land-use decisions are sustainable. And Higginbotham has his eye on transforming the financially troubled MOSI, soon to open a new chapter at a downtown location.

Of course, the best laid plans are subject to all manner of outside pressures. State lawmakers may take steps this year that would cut county property tax revenues. Hurricane Irma reminded local leaders how quickly their spending priorities can change. And no one foresaw the anguish over resolving one of the defining issues of 2017 ó the push to relocate a Confederate memorial from public property downtown.

Also coloring the countyís progress in 2018 will be an election that decides which commissioners remain in office. Term limits have made for a curious game of musical chairs: Four commissioners are up for re-election ó Crist, Hagan, Murman and White ó and all but White are attempting to move from their current district to another seat on the commission. Higginbotham will retire at the end of the year.

Will the commissioner-candidates pander to the new electorate they need to engage? Will they take on projects that boost their profiles rather than serving their constituents? Will they spend more time campaigning than earning their near-six figure salaries?

Taking steps to improve mass transit in Hillsborough is really just a humble first step toward the comprehensive transportation plan that the Tampa Bay area needs. But as a 2018 priority for a county commission facing election, it holds promise as an action both vital and popular.